My God, Brandon! What were you two even DOING out there so late at night!That sounded like...? I was depressed about Leighann and Huey wanted to cheer me up, so we went out for a few beers and-Brandon? Beers? Drinking! What the hell is wrong with you, boy? When on God's good green earth will you ever grow up?
Then I felt my aches.
My head was pounding, DUN, DUN, DUN, and DUN, like a fucking heartbeat in my skull. My left side was on fire. Turning it even a fraction of an inch was like throwing kindling on it. My chest felt so tight on me that breathing was a chore. I had other little pains, a throbbing at my thigh and hot sharp stabs on my shins, but they felt like shit compared to my head and my side.
My left eye was a chamber door, opening slowly. The other one wouldn't move, but I could see out of it a little. My head was propped up on a starchy pillow and my clothes were gone. There was a backless blue smock on me from neck to toe. My neck was stiff but turning it was easier than moving my eyes, and a glance to my left showed me a table with a jug of water and a plastic cup with white and blue meds in it. My aches throbbed all the harder for seeing them. Then a placid voice called out over a PA system could Dr. Reeve please attend the burn ward? Dr. Reeve to the burn ward...
I was in hospital.
Laughter hit my chest (even though there was nothing funny going on) but it left my throat like a rusty cough. When I reached for the water my side seized up, blazing like a furnace, and left me seething.
"Damn it...!" I croaked.
Brandon tugged open the plastic sheet walling off my bed from the rest of the room. He never looked happier or more upset to see me; equal parts flattering and frightening. "Huey! Jesus man, you're awake!"
"Yeah," I faked a smile for him. "Where...?"
"Where are we? A medical centre in East Palatka, I forget the name. When you didn't come back from Timothy's I doubled back and-"
The metal rings holding up the sheet slithered over the railing again. Mrs. Wimmer came in with a doctor at her side. She glared at her son (who instantly went quiet) then came to my bedside with the biggest, fakest smile I'd seen since Aunt Nonie brought her Korean boyfriend to Sunday dinner at Gramma's house.
"Oh, Huey how are you, son?" She said. "How do you feel; can I get you anything?"
I opened my mouth to ask for a cup of water but the doctor, a tired looking middle-aged black woman, came up the other side of my bed and said, "Hello, Huey. I'm Dr. Cunningham. I know you've been through a terrible experience, but I just need to observe you for a moment. Tell me if I cause you any pain, okay?"
She knelt and scrubbed little flakes of dried blood from my cramped eye with a cotton pad until I completely saw through it again. She then pulled a pen-sized torch from her jacket pocket. Dr. Cunningham took my chin by her fingertips, cold and callused, carefully tilted my head back and flashed the light in both eyes. My eyebrow twitched.
"Does that hurt?"
"A little." I said.
Then she slotted her Pokémon of a torch away and held up three fingers, moving them from side to side. "Focus on my fingers. Can you tell me how many I'm holding up?"
She kept moving them. "Do they look blurry? Are you having any trouble follow them?"
"Do you feel nauseous or have any ringing in your ears?"
That I didn't notice until she brought it up. "I hear... a noise like... 'eeeeeeeee' but... I don't... feel sick."
"Okay," Dr. Cunningham stood upright. "No signs of anisocoria, that’s good, but I think you may have a concussion."
Mrs. Wimmer gripped her chest. "Oh my God."
"Now now, most concussions are very treatable and mild ones can even go away on their own. What concerns me more is your abdominal pain. Your shortness of breath and tenderness would suggest some bruising of the ribs."
"Is that bad?" Asked Brandon.
"It's not good but based on what I've seen it's nothing Huey can't recover from. When you're discharged, you'll have to ice your ribs frequently and I don't recommend much activity, but we have lots of pamphlets and advice for home care. Now normally I'd recommend something like ibuprofen for your pain but between your bruised ribs and the concussion you're going to be in a lot of it, so I'll have to put you on a course of Hydrocodone. This can sometimes have adverse effects on the concussed, so we'll have to keep you in overnight to observe you. Also, as a precaution, I'd like to fit you in for a CT scan to check for any intracranial bleeding."
Mrs. Wimmer sharpened. "How much will that cost?"
"I'm not sure this is the time to discuss this, Mrs. Wimmer."
"Well can you give me a rough estimate?"
Dr. Cunningham paused. "I can do so outside, if you like?"
Mrs. Wimmer turned to me, not getting the hint. "Huey, does your father have health insurance?"
My head pounded so much it was hard to think. I knew Dad had some from his wind farm job but that wouldn't cover me, would it? Besides… "I don't want him... to know about... this."
She paused to think before she smiled. If I had a better mind, then I would've seen how much I was asking of her. Then, it only seemed like she was doing me a kindness. "Okay, Kiddo. You're all right, mostly, so I won't say anything. For now."
I heard more talking over the drumbeat in my head (and the white noise in my ears) but none could keep me awake. Brandon said something later, I forget what, and I fell asleep to Mrs. Wimmer chewing him out for it.
A concussion, two rib contusions, six lacerations, a busted lip and a black eye. Between what I saw on myself and what the doctors told me between sleep spells, those were my only war wounds. It could have been worse. When Brandon brought me my iPhone the following day (just a few hours before my CT scan) I looked up stuff about concussions and rib injuries. They really were very treatable and over the hours it seemed luckier and luckier that nothing was broken, but that knowledge didn't make me feel any better. The Hydrocodone helped smother the headaches for a couple hours but didn't do much for my ribs; those only felt better under an ice pack and even then -- not by much.
The next day an officer with big bombs and a Stetson came from the county sheriff's office to take a statement from me. I told her some dudes; maybe 20s or 30s, maybe black or white (I couldn't tell) jumped me from behind and beat me up. She asked me if they took anything and I lied and said they swiped $53. I felt bad for lying but if she'd been better at her job, she would've asked me about Brandon's wallet. She said she took a statement from him yesterday and no doubt he would've brought it up and mentioned, just in passing, that it was odd that Huey's 'muggers' didn't take it from him. As it happens the officer didn't bring it up and I was sure whatever piss-poor investigation they did wouldn't turn up anything. After a half-hour she left me to my aches.
I hated my spell in hospital. The lousy microwaveable food, the sterile walls and all the nascent medicinal stinks; I hated all of it. Fortunately, I wasn't there long. The day after my scan results came back (and no intracranial bleeding or abnormalities were detected) I was released to Mrs. Wimmer's care. When she took me to the car, I heaved a sigh of relief at finally shedding that suffocating hospital atmosphere, but on the slow drive back to Tuckettsville I felt guilty about putting Mrs. Wimmer out by a few hundred bucks. I had about half of that in my account, spending money for my vacation, but when I offered to draw it out the night before she refused to take it.
"This isn't your fault, Huey," said Savannah, when I apologized to her for the expense. "We're all just glad you're all right. You aren't to blame."
Except that I was. That was all my fault, I thought. I was the one who took Brandon out drinking, I was the one too pussy to fight back when a couple of assholes turned me into a human heavy bag, and now she was paying for my CT scan. I promised Mrs. Wimmer that when I was better, I'd do shifts at the Stop, Shop and Go! until I'd paid her back and I didn't back down until she said "Okay! Fine, all right."
I understood then why my Dad was always so fucking obsessed with paying back anything he owed. "Bad credit's for bankers and blacks," he used to tell me. "Real men pay their debts."
When I get better, I thought, I'll make sure everyone gets what they're owed.
"Careful," Brandon said, "Take it easy."
I had my arm around his body the way he had his around mine a few nights ago, as he helped me to my room and into my bed. Worn old Spider-man sheets replaced the white ones I'd been using up to now and all my things; my satchel, my art supplies, my class notes and summer reading lists, were rearranged around the coffee table at my bedside. I panicked for a moment thinking what if someone saw all my sketches but then my ribs throbbed, like my body was warning me against thinking too much, and I was in too much pain to worry.
"I'm due another Hydrocodone," I seethed, breathing through my teeth. "Could you get them for me?"
Not that I wanted to ask him, but I couldn't do it myself. "No problem," Brandon said. He unzipped my overnight bag, took out my meds and gave them to me with a bottle of Zephyrhills. I uncapped the water bottle and chased the pill down with it, hoping to almighty Jeebus that that it'd kick in soon.
"Thanks," I said. "You keep this up and I'm gonna start calling you Alfred."
Not even the Hardy Boys could find the humour in Brandon's face then. "Iowa," he said. "What the hell happened?"
The Durkins beat the snot out of me, I thought. "Nothing."
"Dude, my mom is shitting kittens out there. She's terrified that when your Dad finds out about this he'll freak and blame her. My Dad's half convinced that someone needs to come down here and get you. Everybody's freaking out and I still don't have a clue what happened. Pass the weed and enlighten me."
Brandon glared at me demandingly but when I thought about telling him the truth, I realized that I didn't want to. Guesswork told me his reaction would be to find the Durkins and score some payback, or to go straight to Leighann and say, "See? This is what Jamie's really like" or something; but whatever his reaction I knew it would be stupid and that's not how I wanted to play this thing. I had to be smart about it. There was gonna be a time to tell Brandon, maybe sooner than I imagined, but this wasn't it.
Someone knocked the door. As I said, "Come in" Katy entered with an ice pack in his hands. He didn't even bother to be cordial with Brandon. "Mom wants to see you in the kitchen about something."
Despite that we're not done with this look on his face, Brandon got up and made his way out. I got the feeling that Mr and Mrs. Wimmer were blaming him for all this. I felt bad that he was being punished for my mistakes. The door clicked behind him and left Katy alone with me. And my head might have been foggy with rib pain but even I saw how good he looked today. Sunlight caught his bangs through the gaps in the shutters and made gold out of his forelock, sterling silver out of his eyes.
He smiled at me. "You look like shit."
"I appreciate your honesty," I actually didn’t, but I liked him too much to bitch. "Can I have my ice pack now?"
Instead of passing it to me he stood there and stared at me like I was a piece of abstract art to be deciphered. I didn't know what to make of it, so I reached over and tried to snatch it from him, but my side locked up on me. I spat fury through my teeth, almost crying, and I folded back onto the bed, agonized.
"Oh God, I'm so sorry!" Katy said. "Are you alright?"
The pain at my ribs was so hot and blinding and my chest felt so fucking tight that I barely heard him apologize, not until something wet, cold and oh-so-soothing squelched the heat up my side. The shooting pain gradually turned into a warm throb. Then I looked down and saw my shirt pulled up to my chest. Katy's various multi-coloured bangles clicked against each other as he pressed the ice pack over the plum bruising at my left side.
"How does that feel?" He asked me.
I exhaled. Slowly. Just breathing was hard with my ribs all fucked up like this. "Better. Thanks."
"When I heard about what happened I was worried," Katy let a hand leave the ice pack to tuck a lock of gold behind his ear. "I don't know why though. I barely know you."
"...Maybe you should get to know me."
I woke up that night hot and sweating. The Hydrocodone I took four hours ago had worn off and my skull thundered again. Since I finished the last of my Zephyrhills after Katy iced my ribs there was nothing left to swallow a new one with, so I hobbled out of bed like Gramma did after bad weather and made for the kitchen to get some more.
On my way back with the water (and a little cut of the cornbread Mrs. Wimmer made for dinner) I saw the light still on underneath Mr. and Mrs. Wimmer's door. I thought better of listening in on them but when I heard Mr. Wimmer say, "It can't go on like this, Savannah" I stopped in my tracks all the same.
"What do you want me to do, send him home?" Said Mrs. Wimmer. Are they talking about me? I thought. "Can you imagine how hurt and embarrassed Brandon would be if I did that? Those two have to live together, Stanley. It's only a couple of months."
"We can't afford all this. You know we can't. $325...? That's almost all the money we put away for Katy's eighteenth."
They are talking about me.
"Huey says he'll work hours at the store to pay it all back when he gets better. I take him at his word."
Mr. Wimmer scoffed. "Wonderful! So, we steal the poor boy's summer by making him work for us! Fantastic!"
"Well what do you think I should do, huh? What else can I do?"
A pause. "You know what else."
"We are not having this conversation again, Stanley."
"Just listen to-"
"I said no, Stanley! My father passed that store onto me! It's the only thing I have left of him. How can you ask me to sell it?"
"Because we can't afford NOT to anymore," I heard a shuffle like fabric was being moved around. Mr. Wimmer's voice became slightly more distant. "Sweetheart, just listen to me. Even with Financial Aid Brandon's tuition is costing us $11,000 per year and it'll be double that if Katy gets into UCLA."
"There's always student loans."
"And lumber the boys with debt the rest of their lives? Come on, Savannah! Brandon doesn't even know what he wants to do with his life. Since he's been back, he's done nothing but belittle his brother and pine after that damn girl at your cousin's diner. Two days ago, he was so drunk he let his friend run off alone at night and just look how that turned out. How on earth could that boy manage real debt?"
"You could talk to Kayden, he'd listen to you. Florida has so many good community colleges-"
"We've spent the past three years building his self-esteem back up after the Junior Durkin fiasco. He has his heart set on UCLA and after everything he's been through in this town, I don't blame him. What sort of message would it send to pay Brandon's way but not Katy's? We promised to put them both through college without any debt, remember?"
I heard Mrs. Wimmer sob.
"Sweetheart, I'm sorry, but you know I'm right. The business is failing and I'm two years away from early retirement. If we sold the store and the bungalow we could pay for their tuition and buy ourselves an apartment. Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville, you name it. But whatever we do it can't keep on like this. Between Brandon's tuition and Katy's homeschooling we have to make a change, if not for us then for the boys. Right?"
"I'm tired, Stanley. Just let me sleep."
More shuffled fabric. They were climbing into bed, obviously.
"Okay. We'll talk about it more morning. Goodnight."
Then the lights went out underneath their door. I went back to my room, took another Hydrocodone, ate the cornbread and wondered if Katy and Brandon had any idea their parents were broke.
This is an original work of fiction, all characters belong to me. Any resemblance to person(s) living or dead is purely coincidental, etc...